No longer free, Central State updates online college partnership with AFL-CIO

Formerly free college program will no longer be free but will be ‘affordable.’

Central State University will replace its existing free online college program with one continuing its partnership with the AFL-CIO union but without the free guarantee after controversies with the way the program was run.

The Free College Benefit program allowed students affiliated with the AFL-CIO to attend Eastern Gateway College for free and receive an associate degree and continue at Central State to get a bachelor’s degree in a handful of specific programs, including education and criminal justice.

The Central State Global Union Program is designed to help union members and their families complete their bachelor’s degree while reducing their out-of-pocket costs, Central State University said on its website.

It replaces the controversial Free College Benefit program, which will discontinue on May 13.

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In 2019, the university entered a contract with the Student Resource Center, a for-profit organization that ran the free college program in at least two Ohio colleges and universities, to have a free college program for qualifying nationwide union employees and their families.

But the program came under scrutiny last year when the U.S. Department of Education sent a cease-and-desist letter to Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, which was running an associate degree program.

Central State terminated the agreement last September, and the current semester is the last that students will be enrolled in the free college program at Central State, the university recently confirmed. 

The free college program brought thousands of students to the university. In fall 2019, before the program started, Central State counted 2,033 students in its required preliminary headcount to the Ohio Department of Higher Education. By fall 2020, the number of students had nearly doubled, to 4,021 students total with 2,234 students fully online. In fall 2022, preliminary enrollment was 5,435 total students, with 3,633 students enrolled 100% online. Nearly all the online growth was through the free college program.

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Despite the change in programs, administrators at a recent Central State Board of trustees meeting said projected enrollment for next fall is still up from last fall both in-person and online.

In the new program, students must be a member of a qualifying AFL-CIO union or the immediate family member of a qualifying AFL-CIO union member. Eligibility will be verified at the time of enrollment for those students receiving a Central State Global Union Grant, Central State said.

Students must also have transferable college credits from a regionally accredited institution and a cumulative grade point average of 2.2 or higher. If the student has fewer than 30 credits, the student will need to submit an official high school transcript.

The application deadline for summer 2023 closed on Sunday, but those interested can apply for the fall 2023 semester by June 30.

The tuition rate is $295 per credit for an in-state student and $400 for an out-of-state student, with at most 12-18 credit hours charged at a maximum of $3,540 for in-state and $4,800 out-of-state students.

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